Götterdämmerung: Suicide Music and the National Self as Enemy
by Panayiotis Demopoulos
About the Author

Panayiotis Demopoulos is a Greek composer and performer, holding a PhD in composition from the University of York. He has released 6 solo recordings to critical acclaim, and is artistic director of the Kozani International Music Seminar. His personal website can be accessed here. He is active politically and a busy writer - his most recent academic work includes an editorial for the Contemporary Music Review (Routledge) entitled “Impossible Music”.

For details and critical acclaim on Panayiotis Demopoulos as a composer, performer, and teacher, please click here. For Booking Information, please contact Jack Price, Managing Director, Price Rubin & Partners, 310-254-7149 or email jp@pricerubin.com.

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What role did music play in the death-throes of the Reich? What did the orchestras of the Reich perform in the latter stages of the war? Examining dialogues from the bunker in the expiring days of the Reich, one finds oneself in the rhetoric of Wagner, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. The leitmotif of this prolonged “heroic” exit is a wild case of “noblesse;” and some thousands obliged indeed. This essay will illuminate the use of music as means to support the darker and more sinister ideogram of self-punishment and purification.

Excerpts from the Essay

On April 11th 1945, as the Red Army fast-approached Berlin, the Berlin Philharmonic gave what might have been its last concert before the end of the war. Albert Speer, who had intervened to save members of the Orchestra from their senseless drafting into the Volksturm, organized a final concert, entitled Konzert für Minister Speer in the Berlin Beethoven Haal, still curiously standing amidst the city’s rubble.

Read Panayiotis Demopoulos'
complete essay on our website.

The programme for the concert commenced with the final scene from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung:

…Grane my steed. I greet you. 
Do you know my friend where I shall lead you? 
In that radiant fire lies your master, Siegfried, my blessed hero.
Are you neighing happily because you are following your friend? 
Are you drawn to him in the laughing flames?

Hence, Valhalla, home of the Gods was consumed in fire. The metaphorical question is obvious: were the German people ‘neighing happily’ in those ‘radiant fires’? This author uses his very limited life experience to conclude that they were not. Still, as Michael Geyer describes very astutely “…sacrifice in order to maintain community was a self-evident virtue in catastrophe…”  And ‘the war’, or to be more accurate the destruction of Berlin and its people, went on.

According to most sources as well as popular myth, Speer engineered a move for the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic to the relative peace of Bayreuth, but they chose to remain with their Berliner audiences until the end of the war. The Orchestra’s final concerts were given in candlelight, under bombing and with Hitler Jugend children offering the exiting members of the audience cyanide capsules for private use, adding to the tragic and conclusive atmosphere of the whole affair.

One cannot help but feel that if present in those concerts, any German Romanticism aficionado might find the confusing air of cynicism and resignation contagious if not seductive—a prescribed death is often both the bringer of despair and of irresistible primordial and sensual tensions.

It is, nonetheless difficult to ascertain the audience’s experience, especially the military officers’ emotional response to the music. After all, the people of Berlin, suffering greatly as they were in those last months of the war, might have found the lush Wagnerian orchestral landscape extremely poignant in the face of defeat and the accompanying humiliation, pillaging and rape which they feared it would bring.

The Orchestra went on to give two more concerts, in which the main works were—fittingly—the Deutsches Requiem by J. Brahms and Tod und Verklarung by J. Strauss. It becomes quite clear from the choice of repertoire that the Orchestra was now playing a funeral march for the entire nation. This neurosis of being unable to see an alternative future in which the German nation might exist outside of final victory, is best reflected at the infanticide that took place in the bunker by Magda Goebbels.

Read Panayiotis Demopoulos' complete essay on our website.

And there was music there too, perhaps the only music that might stop the senseless killing. According to Traudl Junge the Goebbels’ children sang for Hitler, who was very pleased to hear their song. This innocent choir of young voices was soon murdered by its very mother, in the bunker, just before the mother herself committed suicide. There is no academic phrasing suitable enough to describe the incomprehensibility of how mankind can achieve this nonsense, especially at this high level of leadership.

In the last 4 months of the war, more than 1,500,000 Germans, including hundreds of thousands of civilians, lost their lives in an increasingly vain war effort. Music was a tool in encouraging the German people to continue fighting. Charles Whiting is also convinced that musical fantasies had taken over Hitler’s psyche when he describes why this national suicide occurred:

When the end came for Hitler, he staged his own Götterdämmerung in his Berlin bunker. He refused to surrender, preferring to take of his own life over an unheroic end. By his absolute refusal to even consider capitulation, he ensured vast, horrible destruction of lives and property long after these losses could have had any possible affect upon the outcome of the war. Hitler lived out his fantasy to the end; to the fullest; precipitating the realization of his favorite operatic scene, the final destruction of the gods and Valhalla.

One would have to add the pleasure of punishment to this emotional struggle. Hitler first spoke of ‘traitors’ and ‘weaklings’ in Mein Kampf. His Generals adopted this leitmotif and preached it to the end: “For us there is no higher law and no more sacred duty than to fight to the last breath for the freedom of our people, that we want to rid ourselves of everything soft and disloyal.” said Alfred Jodl on November 7th, 1942 to the Volksturm.

In this light, the last few days of the Russian advance were a sort of execution of the weaker, more treacherous elements of German society. By that point, this might not be merely acceptable, but desirable. Otherwise put, Hitler himself dreamed and wished for his people that what they had failed to become—an army of suicidal faithful—would one day come to be. He explained in his Political Testament:

May it become, at some future time, part of the code of honor of the German officer, as it is already in our Navy, that the surrender of a district or of a town is impossible, and that the leaders here above all must march ahead as shining examples, faithfully fulfilling their duty unto death.

Duty, being the operative word. There were two oaths for the military and the civil service of which the former read: "I swear by God this sacred oath that to the Leader of the German empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and that as a brave soldier I shall at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.”.

Therefore, it is not conjecture, but a blatant reality that for Hitler duty and death were the same thing by this stage of the war, which applied for all men between the ages of 16 and 60 (Volksturm). In this final act, not even the Tristan chord might confer some magical turn of events. The role of music was plainly that of a muffled, funeral drum that led to the guillotine.

Read Panayiotis Demopoulos' complete essay on our website.